As the story goes, the titan Prometheus so loved man that he stole fire from Mount Olympus and brought it to Earth for all to use. And for that theft, Zeus chained Prometheus the rock and commanded an eagle to eat his liver for all eternity.
Ephriam Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is also bound to the rock, though his is a desolate, primeval island off the coast of Nova Scotia circa 1890. Winslow has come to this wasteland for a four-week stint of hard labor as a wickie’s assistant. But watching Winslow’s ship pierce through the dense fog on his arrival says otherwise. Only a ride from Charon would seem more foreboding.
“Wickie” is parlance for a lighthouse keeper — a protector of the flame, if you will — and on this island, that man is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wrinkled, bearded, and full of flatulence, Wake looks a little like Sterling Hayden in The Long Goodbye. In that movie, Hayden played Roger Wade, an alcoholic writer in the vein of Ernest Hemmingway. There’s more than a touch of Papa Hemmingway in Wake — from the ability to recite passages at the drop of a hat to constant, almost compulsive, drinking. At one point, a storm strands Wake and Winslow on the island, and they go to unearth provisions buried for just such an occasion. Does Winslow find sustaining food in those buried provisions? No: just a crate of grain alcohol.
There’s a bit of Hemmingway in the way director Robert Eggers tells the tale of The Lighthouse. From masculine relationships to the ability to weave old myths through new images, Eggers presents his story in stunning black and white — with a great number of surreal and truly grotesque images — and a 1:19 aspect ratio. There is something graphically pleasing about a square frame — and arrogant. It’s as if Eggers is saying: I need this much, and no more, to tell my story.
The frame isn’t the only thing constricting this world. There are no other islands in sight, and a booming warning siren cuts through Winslow’s every thought and quiet moment. Only the seagulls are there to keep him company. Wake believes each gull is the reincarnation of a deceased sailor. Be this purgatory? Maybe. Sitting atop this desolation is a beautiful, glistening beacon of light.
Winslow is never allowed into the light — Wake forbids it. Yet, like a moth to the flame, Winslow cannot help his attraction. The great Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj used a similar metaphor when he described God. For Al-Hallaj, his beloved was like a flame that would engulf him and quench his spiritual thirst. Yes, a death sacrifice must be paid, but such is the cost of enlightenment.
But first, Winslow must atone. That is what he came here for, though he probably didn’t know that when he boarded the ship. Wake might have. Like Father Zeus, Wake may be as old as time itself. But, unlike Al-Hallaj, Winslow lacks the humility to become one with his beloved. Instead, he defies it.
Back on the rock, Hermes told Prometheus that if he apologizes, Zeus would show compassion and let him go. To which Prometheus responded: Tell Zeus I despise him.
Wake is not the only father figure Winslow despises. But Winslow is no titan. He is a mortal man made of flesh and blood, and his punishment is painful. He can no more spit in the eyes of Zeus than he can pull in Leviathan with a fishhook; or make a statue of himself, like Bokonon, grinning horribly, and thumbing his nose at You Know Who.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Produced by Robert Eggers, Youree Henley, Lourenço Sant’ Anna, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
A24, Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens October 25, 2019